"Expelled" and the Angry Englishman

It’s always hard to watch two people you love quarreling with each other.

I started out enjoying Ben Stein’s deadpan appearances in many movies and TV shows. I liked him more when I found out about his sharp wit and flat-out scary intelligence on Win Ben Stein’s Money. Then I fell madly in love with him (well, you know, in a manly way) when I found out that he was a staunch advocate for conservative values.

And speaking of staunch conservatives, John Derbyshire is one of my favorite regular contributors to National Review. He’s the designated pessimistic grump on staff and pretty consistently a downer to read, but in an entertaining way. I’ve often referred to him as “the fearless John Derbyshire” because of his complete indifference to political correctness and ready willingness to say pretty much anything he feels like saying.

They have a lot of political, economic, and social beliefs in common, so you’d think they’d get along famously. But John is mad, and I mean really mad, about Ben’s documentary “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.” I mean, really mad:

It’s pretty plain that the thing is creationist porn, propaganda for ignorance and obscurantism. How could a guy like this do a thing like that?

One of my favorite comments [about the movie] came from “Pixy Misa” (Andrew Mazels) who correctly called Ben Stein’s accusing Darwin of responsibility for the Holocaust “a blood libel on science.”

I would actually go further than that, to something like “a blood libel on Western Civilization.”

Well, jeepers. What’s the cause of all this bile?

I’ve seen “Expelled,” and I was pretty impressed by it, probably because I went in with low expectations. I expected an unwavering promotion of intelligent design and attack of Darwinism with production values equal to a good student film from a medium-sized city college. What I got was a low-budget but slickly-produced documentary that set out to make (and I think largely succeeded in making) three points:

1) People who raise questions about the theory of evolution are shunned and ostracized in the academic world.

2) Though the academic establishment seems to believe otherwise, there is no inherent conflict between science and religion and no reason the two can’t coexist.

3) Unquestioning acceptance of Darwin’s theory could potentially lead to very bad things, like the dehumanization of the “unfit,” as in eugenics and Nazism.

These three points seem so unprovocative to me that, after seeing the movie, I’m even more surprised by the level of hatred that’s coming from the critics, including the completely over-the-moon flip-out from Derbyshire.

Is this documentary slanted to one side of the argument? Of course it is, and in that sense it is just like every other documentary in the history of the universe. But there were no wild claims about the validity of intelligent design; they didn’t even try to define it. Nor did they try to disprove Darwin’s theory. They did point out some very real, significant gaps in the scientific understanding of the origin of life on earth. But from the reactions, you’d think they were trying to burn down the Smithsonian and replace it with a clown college. Derbyshire again:

And now here is Ben Stein, sneering and scoffing at Darwin, a man who spent decades observing and pondering the natural world — that world Stein glimpses through the window of his automobile now and then, when he’s not chattering into his cell phone. Stein claims to be doing it in the name of an alternative theory of the origin of species: Yet no such alternative theory has ever been presented, nor is one presented in the movie, nor even hinted at. There is only a gaggle of fools and fraudsters, gaping and pointing like Apaches on seeing their first locomotive: “Look! It moves! There must be a ghost inside making it move!”

The “intelligent design” hoax is not merely non-science, nor even merely anti-science; it is anti-civilization. It is an appeal to barbarism, to the sensibilities of those Apaches, made by people who lack the imaginative power to know the horrors of true barbarism.

Well, brother, if you’re frightened by “Expelled,” I’m twice as frightened by your reaction to it. Because it highlights something the movie didn’t explore explicitly, though it runs as an ominous undercurrent through the whole thing: the ongoing, relentless efforts to replace religion with science.

I’m a big fan of science, because I love Playstations and cell phones and antibiotics, and all that good stuff. But I recognize that it, like all other tools employed by fallible man, has its limitations. On the other hand, John Derbyshire and many like him are science votaries who look upon the scientific method with an immovable, profound … what’s the word for it? … faith.

And there is science, perhaps the greatest of all our achievements, because nowhere else on earth did it appear. China, India, the Muslim world, all had fine cities and systems of law, architecture and painting, poetry and prose, religion and philosophy. None of them ever accomplished what began in northwest Europe in the later 17th century, though: a scientific revolution. Thoughtful men and women came together in learned societies to compare notes on their observations of the natural world, to test their ideas in experiments, and in reasoned argument against the ideas of others, and to publish their results in learned journals. A body of common knowledge gradually accumulated. Patterns were observed, laws discerned and stated.

Our scientific theories are the crowning adornments of our civilization, towering monuments of intellectual effort, built from untold millions of hours of observation, measurement, classification, discussion, and deliberation.

Again, I take a backseat to no one in my appreciation of scientific advancements (three words: rechargeable weed eater). But in Derbyshire’s world, every time a sainted scientist comes to a conclusion it is both correct and beneficial. I’m not a scientist, but if I were, I’d say that the empirical evidence doesn’t quite support that view of the world. Elsewhere, Mr. Derbyshire says this:

Part of the anger that I, and a lot of other science-literate conservatives, feel towards Stein arises from his joining in the creationists’ attempts to breach an academic barrier we’ve put our faith in, perhaps complacently. While every kind of lunacy has run rampant through our Humanities departments this past couple of decades, we’ve taken consolation in the fact that science and math departments have been able to go quietly about their work without any of the lunacy really affecting them. You can have Gay Legal Studies or Latina History, but Feminist Differential Geometry is much harder to get started. Being firmly in touch with empirical reality, or in the case of math with rigorous proof procedures, the sciences can’t easily be disturbed by politicized crackpottery. [slack-jawed emphasis mine – j]

Can’t be disturbed by politicized crackpottery? Are you freaking kidding me? Have you ever heard the words “global warming?” How about “stem cells?” Or maybe “second-hand smoke?” Or this oldie but goodie, “DDT?”

All of these subjects (and these are just the ones I could think of off the top of my spontaneously occurring and randomly evolving head) have been absolutely drenched in crackpottery, from the first to the last. Scientists have bent, twisted, and jimmied their data to fit all manner of ulterior motives, and that’s not even counting the scientists who gave us screwed up “facts” because they were just bunglers. But Derbyshire wants to shroud science in an aura of infallibility, like it’s beyond such common foibles as mere men. Like it is a god.

You can respect science without thinking it’s infallible. In fact, I think that’s the only way you can respect science. When people have such reverence for science and scientists that they stop asking questions (even stupid questions), then it stops being science. Instead, it’s just religious proclamation. And feel free to question me if you disagree.